Iran’s Shiite Crescent scheme faced its first obstacle when it attempted to strike base in Syria.
Israel laid down a red line against this move with an air strike on Jan. 18 against a group of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah officers checking out the site for a new outpost at Quneitra on the Syrian Golan.
Gen. Mohamad Ali Allah Dadi, commander of Iranian forces in Syria, and Ali al-Tabtabani, chief of Hizballah’s military, intelligence and terrorist operations outside Lebanon, died in the attack, along with five other Iranian and 4 Hizballah officers.
This was a targeted assassination, the first Israel ever conducted openly against an Iranian general outside Iran. It was meant to carry a strong hands-off message.
Hizballah retaliated Friday, Jan. 28 by attacking an Israeli military convoy from its mountain outpost near the disputed Shaaba Farms. The Israeli convoy was carrying officers on a tour of inspection of border defenses. An officer and sergeant were killed.
For Tehran, however, the account with Israel for the general’s death remains open.
Monday, Feb. 2, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the powerful chairman of the Iranian majlis Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, warned that his country still “has the right to avenge itself against Israel” for the Quneitra attack “by operations anywhere in the world.”
Syrian Qalamoun linked to Iraqi Anbar on route to the Mediterranean
In the past fortnight, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah tacticians have been engaged in a tense shadow war with Israel, both sides testing and feeling out the ground ready for the next major clash. It is widely expected to take place on Syrian soil and pit Iran against Israel in direct conflict.
Tehran has no intention of giving up its plan to incorporate in its “Shiite Crescent” scheme the Qalamoun Mountains of western Syria and the slopes of Mount Hermon edging onto the Shabaa Farms (disputed between Israel and Hizballah). (See attached map)
These areas are meant to form a narrow enclave, 150km long and no more than 10 km wide (except in the Hizballlah-controlled Beqaa Valley of eastern Lebanon).
Iran plans to cut this enclave out of Syrian territory for three military advantages:
1. As a link along the “Shiite Crescent” route to the Mediterranean from Iran-controlled Anbar Province in Western Iraq (see separate article in this issue). The Qalamoun and Anbar bastions are to be constructed as mutually supportive entities for their defense.
2. Iran’s Syrian enclave will serve as a raised fist against both Israel and Jordan. To this end, it was decided to build additional strongholds on Mt. Hermon and the Syrian Golan – hence the Iranian-Hizballah scouting mission near Quneitra that Israel targeted last month.
A Shiite legion 150,000 strong projected for Qalamoun fortress
3. Tehran’s plans for the Golan are a lot more ambitious than that.
South Lebanon is seen as having outlived its strategic usefulness as a ready-made launching pad for attacking Israel. Tehran calculates that the vast Hizballah arsenal of surface rockets and missiles would be destroyed by Israel in the early stages of a future conflict.
It is therefore proposed to relocate the entire Hizballah war machine – units, bases and missiles – from South Lebanon to the Qalamoun Mts. of Syria.
Tehran, like its foe, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is indifferent to Middle East state boundaries when pursuing its goals. Iran ignores the borders dividing it from Iraq, Iraq from Syria and Syria from Lebanon, and treats these countries as a continuous, undivided expanse, a clean blackboard for drawing its own maps.
Planned now, according to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, is the withdrawal of some 15,000 men, the bulk of Hizballah’s fighting strength, from Lebanon and Syria, to the new Shiite stronghold in western Syria, except for a small contingent guarding Shiite interests in Beirut.
They will be joined by another 70,000 men, members of the Iranian-built and commanded Syrian “Popular Army” – together with the 15-30,000 troops of Iraqi Shiite militias.
Altogether, a Shiite legion of 150,000 men under arms will be deployed at the Qalamoun fortress and available to do Tehran’s bidding.
This fortress is not conceived as a stationary facility, but a flexible base of military operations, whose units are kept on the move against Iran’s targeted foes in Israel, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
Israel weighs options for getting in the way of Iran’s plans
Israel’s government and military chiefs have yet to finally determine ways and means for dealing with the hostile Iranian master plan rolling out on its eastern border.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Maj. Gen. Gady Eisenkott, who takes over as IDF chief of staff next April, are of one mind that Tehran must not be permitted to consummate its master plan for Syria – even at the cost of engaging Iranian forces in battle on Syrian soil.
If the targeted assassinations of Jan. 18 were not enough, Israel may have to follow up with stronger action to foil Tehran’s plans.
A second school of thought in the Israeli high command is more nuanced. Its main proponents are the outgoing chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, OC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, and the new Military Intelligence (AMAN) chief Herzi Halevy.
They maintain that the transformation of the Syrian Qalamoun Mountains into an Iranian Shiite fortress need not warrant an Israeli military response. On the other hand, Israel must on no account stand by if Hizballah forces are lifted wholesale out of Lebanon to face Israel at dangerously close quarters from Mt. Hermon and the Golan. Israel must then stand up and fight to thwart this radical geo-strategic deterioration.
Israel’s leaders have not yet decided which tack to adopt.
However, Tehran shows every determination to go through with its plans – even at the risk of meeting Israel on the battlefield.